On this Day in Movie History, November 23, 1887: Boris Karloff Born

On this day, November 23, 1887, English actor William Henry Pratt was born. Recognized as one of the true icons of horror cinema, and the actor most closely identified with the general public’s perception of the “monster” from the classic Mary Shelley book, “Frankenstein”, William Henry Pratt was born in Camberwell, London, England the son of Edward John Pratt Jr., the Deputy Commissioner of Customs Salt and Opium, Northern Division, Indian Salt Revenue Service, and his third wife, Eliza Sarah Millard. Perhaps you may know him by his stage name, Boris Karloff.

Educated at London University in anticipation that he would pursue a diplomatic career, he, however, emigrated to Canada in 1909 and joined a touring company based out of Ontario and adopted the stage name of “Boris Karloff.” Needing cash to support himself, Karloff secured occasional acting work in the fledgling silent film industry in such pictures as The Deadlier Sex (1920), Omar the Tentmaker (1922), Dynamite Dan (1924) and Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927), in addition to a handful of serials (the majority of which sadly haven’t survived). Karloff supplemented his meager film income by working as a truck driver in Los Angeles, which allowed him enough time off to continue to pursue acting roles.

His big break came in 1931 when he was cast as “the monster” in the Universal production of Frankenstein (1931), directed by James Whale, one of the studio’s few remaining auteur directors. The aura of mystery surrounding Karloff was highlighted in the opening credits, as he was listed as simply “?.” The film was a commercial and critical success for Universal, and Karloff was instantly established as a hot property in Hollywood.

He quickly appeared in several other sinister roles, including Scarface (1932) (filmed before Frankenstein (1931)), the black-humored The Old Dark House (1932), as the namesake Oriental villain of the Sax Rohmer novels in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), as undead Im-Ho-Tep in The Mummy (1932) and the misguided Prof. Morlant in The Ghoul (1933).

While Karloff continued appearing in a plethora of films, many of them were not up to the standards of his previous efforts, including appearances in two of the hokey Bud Abbott and Lou Costello monster movies (he had appeared with them in an earlier superior effort, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), which theater owners often added his name to the marquee), the low point of the Universal-International horror movie cycle.

During the 1950s he was a regular guest on many high-profile TV shows including “The Buick-Berle Show” (1948), “Tales of Tomorrow” (1951), “The Veil” (1958), “The Donald O’Connor Show” (1954), “The Red Skelton Hour” (1951) and “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” (1956), to name but a few, and he appeared in a mixed bag of films including Sabaka (1954) and Voodoo Island (1957). (1965).

Karloff’s last great role was as an aging horror movie star confronting a modern-day sniper in the Peter Bogdanovich film Targets (1968). His TV career was capped off by achieving Christmas immortality as the narrator of Chuck Jones’s perennial animated favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) (TV). Three low-budget Mexican-produced horror films starring an ailing Karloff were released in the two years after his death; however, they do no justice to this great actor.

1888 – Harpo (Adolph) Marx (comedian, musician: harp, piano; silent member of the Marx Brothers comedy team: Animal Crackers, A Day at the Races, Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, A Night at the Opera, Go West, At the Circus; actor: Silent Panic; died Sep 28, 1964)

1902 – Victor Jory (actor: Gone with the Wind, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Miracle Worker, Papillon, Charlie Chan in Rio, Manhunt, Kings Row; died Feb 12, 1982)

1915 – Ellen Drew (actress: Hollywood Boulevard, China Sky, Christmas in July, Dark Mountain; died Dec 3, 2003)

1929 – Sybil Jason (Jacobs) (actress: The Blue Bird, The Little Princess)

1934 – Michael Wayne (producer: McLintock!, The Green Berets, Chisum, Big Jake, Cahill: United States Marshal, Brannigan; son of actor John Wayne; died Apr 2, 2003)

1936 – Steve Landesberg (actor: Barney Miller, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, Dean Martin Presents, Sodbusters, Leader of the Band, Final Notice, Blade, Conrad Bloom; died Dec 20, 2010)

1942 – Susan Anspach (actress: Five Easy Pieces, Play It Again, Sam, The Yellow Rose, The Slap Maxwell Story)

1951 – David Rappaport (actor: L.A. Law, Peter Gunn, The Wizard, The Bride, Mysteries; died May 2, 1990)

1959 – Maxwell Caulfield (actor: The Colbys, Sundown, The Supernaturals, Alien Intruder, Grease 2, Mind Games)

1967 – Salli Richardson (actress: I Spy Returns, Prelude to a Kiss, A Low Down Dirty Shame, Rude Awakening, Family Law)


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